With the world heading to financial crisis, many businesses, including motels, are taking a new look at what it is going to take to survive in 2009 and beyond.

With business costs escalating, the main component of which is the cost of labour, and profits rapidly dwindling due to falling occupancy rates and overheads, motel owners in the United States and elsewhere have started looking more and more towards technology as the means of survival.

In terms of motel operations, the tradition has always been to try and present a cheery faced human to provide a warm welcome 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. But the reality is that this luxury is becoming non-affordable especially for the smaller properties of 4 stars and under. Motel owners and managers, whilst professing to be open “full time 24 x 7”, in reality resort to the standard “No Vacancy” sign in order to avoid the cost of a night manager and also as a method whereby they can to try to steal some sleep.

This is in reality just false economy as we head into a world where customers do expect supermarkets to open all night and have traditionally expected motels to be open all hours. Kiosks have been available as a solution to this situation for some time however the perception is that they are too expensive and “high tech” for the average customer. The reality is that kiosk prices are dropping. This is even more true in real terms when you look at the rising cost of wages to the point where kiosks represent a small fraction of the cost of a receptionist. This is especially the case during those wee hours when there is not really that much work to justify a salary. It is just that someone needs to be there for those few guests that turn up late. In most cases where there is at least some late night trade, a kiosk pays for itself. This is through the extra business it brings in and through labour savings by not retaining employees unnecessarily well within 12 months and often faster.

Kiosk technology is also developing rapidly, and some of the functions available include the ability for a property owner to select whether he takes cash, credit card, debit card or any combination of the above as a method of payment. It is also possible to ask for security deposits from cash clients as a means of adding to the comfort level of an unattended kiosk solution.

Security issues have also been addressed with options including the latest IP cameras built in to the kiosk which can be recording all activity. A third party service can also provide security monitoring whenever there is movement in the field of vision i.e. when a client approaches to book a room. It is now possible for a single operator to monitor images and check-ins from up to 20 properties plus simultaneously from a location anywhere in the world.

Other options that are being made available include scanning of signatures and passport or drivers license photos, linking these to images of faces being captured at the time of check-in with an operator confirming remotely that the photo on the document matches the face at the screen. This solution may even be acceptable in those countries where it is mandatory for hotel and motel guests to present formal identification at the time of checking in.

Other technologies that are developing are in the area of door locks. Every one is familiar with the current common technology of master keys and non reproducible room keys as one security method. Electronic locks have become popular as a means of replacing standard room keys to avoid the huge management cost and pain of re-keying locks when guests inadvertently “lose” their room key or simply fail to return it.

Card locks have been around for some time and have a number of known inherent problems such as batteries failing or the magnetic stripe failing to read. Newer technologies are evolving to overcome these issues. Contactless card locks using RFID and smart cards technology are starting to be deployed. These overcome the problems associated with errors reading and writing magnetic strips. The cost of smart cards or “MiFare” cards are quite high and can eat into a managers profits if guests fail to return them. There is still the persistent problem of battery life and lock management. In all of the above, locks must be managed on a room by room basis and need to be physically updated from time to time to maintain time of day etc., especially when daylight saving comes around and when the manager wishes to read room log records for security or monitoring reasons.

Other technologies are being developed and are aiming at solving some of the costly problems mentioned. As an example, Check Inn Systems has developed a cardless locking systems based on number pads programmed with individual codes for each guest and for each staff member. This overcomes the issues of security and the cost of providing new cards on a continuous basis.

The locks can be centrally managed from reception or from anywhere in the world by secure communications so that the manager can set new guest codes and / or delete employee access, all without leaving his desk. The locks may be either wired in, which is optimum for new properties, or they may be controlled via the broadband wireless IP networks currently in place in more and more properties.

These locks are also able to be fully integrated with a kiosk to provide an ideal high technology low cost environment whist providing full convenience and service to the guest. Remember the guests? They are the reason we are all here.

In conclusion, the author strongly believes that technology is the only viable solution for keeping a lid on costs and remaining profitable in the rapidly changing hotel motel industry.

The author, Stephen Tusak, M Sc, Dip Comm Eng, is the technical director of Check Inn Systems, a manufacturer of kiosks and electronic locking systems.